Almost 50 years ago, Odessa acquired a rather unique moniker: “Jazzville, U.S.A.”
It was 1967 and the first Odessa Jazz Party put the city on the map and made this the only other city in the U.S. beside Aspen, Colo., to lay claim to that distinction.
What is now the West Texas Jazz Party is coming May 16-19 at the Double Tree at the Midland Hilton Plaza. And it’s a party with lots of history.
For five nights in 1967, the old Terrace Room of the Golden Rooster Club atop the Inn of the Golden West was the place where stalwart jazz enthusiasts gathered for the first party. The idea of the jazz party is the brainchild of Dr. O.A. Fulcher, who wanted to bring world class jazz to Odessa.
On the backside of an album titled “Sounds of the 1967 Odessa Jazz Party” marked the early years of the West Texas Jazz Society. The album was recorded during the party in 1967 that took place April 18-23 at the Inn of the Golden West.
Member and jazz lover Dee Griffin has been attending the party since 1968. Before the Odessa Jazz Party, she and her husband Faye traveled to St. Louis, Mo., to get their jazz fix.
“I went every year,” said Dee Griffin, who joined the WTJS back in ’68. “When it first started it was from Tuesday through Sunday.”
The event quickly grew drawing in jazz performers from all over the world. And the Odessa Jazz Party was getting a reputation as a sought-after event.
In 1977 Max Christensen and a group of Midland jazz enthusiasts formed the Midland Jazz Association and the Midland Jazz Classic was born. Throughout the history of the events, the two parties have hosted jazz greats from around the world. The list of jazz performers reads as a veritable who’s who of American jazz history.
Ups and downs in the local economy prompted the two parties to merge under the umbrella of the West Texas Jazz Society in 1998. Since then, the West Texas Jazz Society has continued the great traditions of the Odessa Jazz Party and the Midland Jazz Classic by alternating the performance locations between the two cooperating cities.
“We could not have a viable jazz society without involving both towns,” said WTJS
President Margaret Gillham,who’s been involved with the event for decades.
This year, the party will feature 23 musicians, including guitarists, horn and reed players and
percussionists, who will be traveling to West Texas for the show. This year, the toe-tappin’ sounds of the musicians like pianist Johnny Varro, trumpet player Randy Sandke, vocalists Rebecca Kilgore and Eddie Erikson will be featured among the musicians traveling to Odessa for the annual party which has drawn crowds of as much as 400 in the past.
On Thursday, there will be a special preview performance at the Wagner Noël Performing Arts Center which is free to members of WTJS and $35 for guests.
“There will definitely be some new faces this year,” Gillham said.
Since day one, musicians and fans alike travel to West Texas, not for the oil, but for the jazz music and to revel in the “rapturous blending of New Orleans, Chicago, 52nd Street, Newport, Aspen and all the places synonymous with Mecca to the devoted jazz addict,” the back of the album cover reads.
Famed guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli hasn’t missed the Odessa Jazz Party since its premiere. Every year, he travels either from his home in Saddle River, N.J., or wherever he’s playing to Odessa. This year, he’ll travel to Odessa from a jazz party in England.
While you may not recognize Pizzarelli’s name, you might be familiar with some of the recordings he’s played on, like “Georgia on My Mind,” by Ray Charles and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Last year, he recorded an album of American Classics with the infamous Paul McCartney.
“He’s a really nice guy,” Pizzarelli said.
He recalled accepting that first invitation to perform. At time he was playing in bands and doing studio work.
“In those days if you had a guitar you had a job,” Pizzarelli said. “I like to play live, and in 1967, I was doing a lot of studio work when I had a chance to go down to Texas to play.”
On that first trip, he brought cowboy boots and a 10-gallon hat his dad bought when he hitchhiked to Odessa at the age of 16. So Pizzarelli has a special affection for West Texas, too.
Since the early days, the crowds and the patrons have dwindled some, prompting Gillham to reach out to the community to bring in new members especially since West Texas is continuing to grow thanks to the oil boom.
“In the early days it was wonderful,” Gillham said.
They play the classics — and jazz music is some of the greatest music every played, Pizzarelli said.
“It’s the best stuff in the world and it’s still around,” Pizzarelli said.